LandSwalesWater Harvesting

Making Swales with a Tractor and Loader

by Dale Bunger

Just a quick update to show how I have been making swales with a small Kubota and front end loader.

First I start by laying out the path of the swale with my trusty A-frame level. I built this A-frame so the legs would be 5′ apart and I stick in a flag every time I move it across the ground. This allows me to easily measure the length of the swale by simply counting the flags.

Then I start on the uphill side of the swale and skim off the layer of vegetation, usually a few inches deep and a couple of feet wide. I just roll this material slightly downhill.

In this picture you can see a 5 gallon bucket as a reference to scale

Then I go back and follow the same path, but digging in about 18 deep with the bucket, trying to keep a gentle angle for water to enter. This material gets dumped on top of the vegetation layer and creates the berm.

And finally, if you aren’t bored yet, I have a time lapse video of me cutting this.


  1. I would also like to know how long the swal was and how long it took to make it. Also, do you think your hydrostatic transmission could take alot of this repeated back and forth and hold up ok?

  2. Bob – These particular swales were put in for a polyculture of Korean Pine Nut, Elderberry Shrubs, and Blueberries. Blueberries on 3′ (1m) centers directly in the swale, Elderberry Shrubs on 6′ (2m) centers just below the swale, and Korean Pine Nut trees on 24′ (7.5m) centers below them.

    Hugo – This Blueberry Patch consists of 4 parallel swales, on contour, spaced approximately 25′ (8m) apart. Three of the swales are about 145′ (45m) long and one is about 75′ (22m) in length.
    Total time to lay them out with an A-frame, cut them into the hillside, and do a little clean up after was about 4 hours.

    Charles – its amazing how quick a 30hp machine can sculpt the land.

    Grant – I am confident that the Hydrostatic is ideal for this type of application, I wouldn’t even want to think about doing this if I had to shift gears : ( Having a tipping foot pedal for forward/reverse and a single actuator on the bucket makes this more fun than work.

    I also posted a project on the PRI website that shows a different set of swales that I planted with 2 rows of Chestnut / Currant / Grapes and 2 rows of Apple / Hazelnut / Raspberry / Grape.

    1. Hey Matt,
      Id be REALLY interested to see how your idea of a walk behind works to create swales. I just bought a property and am at the planning stage. I will be creating some larger swales with some big machinery, but I have some steep slopes around 30 degrees and I want to create some narrow “swales” or almost terrace like contours to slow the runoff and also feed a couple of dams.
      I saw reference on the net to Bullock drawn mouldboard plough used in Fiji to create productive terraces, and I have a ATV quad bike and thought maybe I could drag a single furrow mouldboard plough behind this and eventually after numerous runs it would create a swale.

      Im in subtropical Australia, and my email is [email protected] if you have any advice or input, thanks!

  3. Good one Dale! Your keeping it simple will inspire a lot of swales with different machines and you’ll be Dale Bunger Swale King!

  4. Dale, great job! I have a smaller Kubota TLB that I’ve been pondering how to use to build swales. I was focused on using the backhoe, since I’ve seen others use a mini-excavator. I never thought about the front end loader…

    Your method is so much better, and well within my capabilities. Thanks again!

  5. Great demo video! Curious about one thing. The level line you lay out is that at the back (side view) of the swale when you start cutting it in? Same area you build the berm on? Thanks!

  6. What size/model Kubota are you using or would you advise? We’re going to be tractor shopping this year….

  7. I was also trying to vision how to build Swales with the backhoe. This is great way for my site And I have the tractor. Probably shape the berm a bit from the downhill side and by hand so not compact it much.

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